Elevating economics: Loving (and farming) a particular place

Economist and theologian Patrick Fleming blends academic theory and family life on a farm for advice on living Laudato Si’

Last month I featured a few insights of Patrick Fleming. Today I'm happy to share more about this young Catholic economist and farmer. I'm sure you'll appreciate what he has to say about bringing alive Pope Francis's eco-encyclical Laudato Si’.

Fleming is a professor of economics at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He also holds a master’s of theology from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family—which he says was a life-changing experience. And he works on his wife’s family farm, also in Lancaster.

No wonder, then, that he easily combines the language of popes and Nobel Laureate economists with the language of the seasons, plants, and animals that come and go around his home, which is the farm where is wife was born.

The economics of purpose

The essay I highlighted a few weeks ago was from an edition of the theological journal Communio that offered a collection of essays on Laudato Si’. Fleming said that his essay, “Economics, Ecology, and Our Common Home: The Limits of a Preference-based Approach to Human Behavior,” is an argument for the integrity of creation, over and against what might be called the “technocratic paradigm.” Part love letter to the created order and part economic analysis, the essay champions the notion that there is “a logic in the heart of creation, of nature, including human nature,” which is opposed to the dominant technocratic view that, Fleming says, “is an idea of nature and human nature as being malleable, without any intrinsic purpose or end.”

“There is a need to act locally … to think of our stewardship of creation in terms of a particular place and not just think about global policy debates.”

In his essay and elsewhere, Fleming looks at the consequences for the study of economics of “draining nature and human nature of any intrinsic purpose and end. Or to speak in Aristotelian language, the consequences of draining the economy of ‘form and finality.’”

Bringing the language of ends and purpose to modern economic theory is important to Fleming. He believes this will help us better tend creation and be better at loving thy neighbor all around. But this task isn’t always easy. Many students and colleagues may appreciate the Church’s ecological concerns, he says, but not necessarily her moral one, especially around sexual morality.

As we talked, Fleming made an observation noted often here at Catholic Ecology. “It’s interesting that when you talk about these issues [of nature having an intrinsic purpose and order, etc.] in the context of the environment—especially agriculture and food—you get a hearing in the broader culture. But when you turn it to the human body—human nature—you tend to be shut out of the conversation.”

He remembers a conversation with a colleague who shared a quote that “using the word natural makes a person look stupid,” since, for example, if we can be convinced that something like global warming is “natural,” we will believe we can do nothing about it.

“I mentioned to him that you have to be very careful about that,” Fleming said. Losing the sense of their being an order to nature or creation “is part of what’s behind our mentality of dominance of the environment—that we can do whatever we want according to our endless desires, because nature has no interior order of its own. And [my colleague] was very willing to hear that argument. But if I put it in the sense of their being an order and logic to the human body, it probably would have been received quite differently.”

In the context of climate change, this Catholic and Christian contribution about intrinsic nature “is so important and so often doesn’t occur.”

Fleming points to Benedict XVI, who doubted we’d be able to confront climate change without a renewed moral impulse—that without it we would be unable to make the necessary lifestyle changes to make any dent in greenhouse gas emissions.

“In the environmental economic discussions that I’m involved in, people focus on mitigation and adaptation to respond to climate change,” Fleming said. “But the third piece that I think is missing is the notion of suffering and sacrifice. And it’s no surprise in a way that this is so, because we don’t really have in the public discourse a way to think about suffering and sacrifice as having meaning.”

“We can’t love things only in the abstract. To truly love the world we have to love a particular piece of it. To love friendship we have to love particular friends.”

But Catholics and the Christian tradition does, he said, with a Savior who suffers, and the path of redemption always going through the cross in a fallen world.

“I was thinking recently that a perfect mirror image of the inability to respond intelligently to climate change, at a personal level, is the euthanasia or right to die movement. We don’t see a point of suffering or sacrifice and so we’d rather die than voluntarily suffer or undergo sacrifice.”

That point got me to ask Patrick how we get the Catholic understanding of suffering and sacrifice into the global eco-conversation.

The easy answer people give is education, he said, admitting that it’s something of too easy of an answer.

“There is a need to act locally … to think of our stewardship of creation in terms of a particular place and not just think about global policy debates.”

Fleming said that this has to do partly with the way the human mind and heart work. “We can’t love things only in the abstract. To truly love the world we have to love a particular piece of it. To love friendship we have to love particular friends.”

Loving one’s home

“I do think that the mobility of our culture—how people move from one place to another so frequently in contemporary life—makes it all the more challenging to be good stewards of creation. We tend to think in the environmental movement that there is a way to manage the problem away, or that there is always going to be a technical solution. But a mindset that only thinks of technical management and doesn’t see particularities is part of the problem. And ecological devastation has gone hand in hand with people being uprooted around the globe from their ancestral homes or from their intergenerational ties to particular places.”

Elinor Ostrom, the 2009 Nobel Laureate in Economics, noted this link between instability and ecological damage, he said. In her extensive research on how certain cultures have managed to avoid the “tragedy of the commons,” she found that local stability was commonly a key ingredient in order to sustainably manage shared resources across generations—be it common pastures in Switzerland, wild animal herds in Kenya, or lobster fisheries in Maine.

“It’s hard to ignore that nature has an interior logic to it—an interior order—when you’re working with plants and animals.”

Fleming, who lives next to the fourth-generation farmhouse in which his wife Elisa was born, said that trying to be more rooted and stable—“which today implies living totally counterculturally, and also may imply making economic sacrifices”—is a necessary part of the solution. “We can’t have a policy that makes people do that,” he added, but nevertheless it’s important for many reasons to live and love locally.

“If you look at it historically, it’s indisputable that [environmental destruction and modern mobility] have gone hand in hand. But I think few people consider that there is a logical link between the two mindsets.”

What farm work can teach us

Fleming’s doctorate degree is in agricultural and resource economics. His doctoral work studied the relation between agricultural non-point pollution from stormwater runoff, the use of particular conservation practices, and government cost-sharing sharing programs in Maryland. He continues to study such economic realities, and how they support or discourage sound, sustainable farming practices.

Living and working on his wife’s family dairy farm brings such academic studies to life. In fact, Fleming would like to share the value of such on-the-ground work with his students. He’d like to develop a program that offers credits for college courses taught on the farm while students live and work on the farm, thus blending study and labor, which can bring insights to both.

“It’s hard to ignore that nature has an interior logic to it—an interior order—when you’re working with plants and animals,” Fleming said. “You sort of learn the pace of nature and that it’s not always your pace. You learn that there are limits that are not just arbitrary, but are part of the order of things. And you learn that your own flourishing as a human being comes when you’re in harmony—in right relationship—with those limits and that logic. There is a way to speak these perennial [theological] truths anew through farming and ecology.”

What’s next?

Fleming said that the conventional way of thinking about economics “has trouble thinking of the notion of limits—ecological or moral limits. And that’s been one of the consequences of draining nature—including human nature—of its intrinsic form or finality, of making it completely malleable to our preferences in order to ‘maximize utility’.”

He said that economics at its best can be “a science of human flourishing” but to get there “economists have to move beyond talking only about allocation of scare resources and also talk about ends—what is the purpose of our economic activity.”

Fleming said that some economists, both Catholic and non-Catholic, are beginning to consider this.

"Amartya Kumar Sen, a Nobel Laureate, has been spending his career trying to get beyond this notion that the only thing human beings are doing in the economy is trying to maximize utility. That describing human beings as utility maximizers is not good from a normative perspective, but that it’s also not even an accurate way of describing much of human economic behavior.”

In other words, Sen is attempting to move economics to consider the objective goods that people pursue.

“That’s a harmonious approach to a genuine Catholic view, where the human being is pursuing an end that lies in our ultimate flourishing with God. And that’s in part why Augustine’s notion of our restless hearts plays an important role in my thought about economics.”

Fleming said that economics at its best can be “a science of human flourishing” but to get there “economists have to move beyond talking only about allocation of scare resources and also talk about ends—what is the purpose of our economic activity.”

Fleming said that Augustine’s observation that “My heart is restless until it rests in thee, O Lord” is “not just meant to be prescriptive, but descriptive. And so if economists want to study people—human economic behavior—adequately, we need to consider the ultimate ends of human activity.” Questions not normally considered in mainstream economic discourse then come to the fore: questions of justice, the proper scale of economic enterprise, the balance of work and leisure, and the importance of the Sabbath for the healing of both communities and the land.

Otherwise, Fleming said, economists (who influence a great many people) will spend their time arguing about efficiently allocating means, with no common understanding of how to distribute them, “or how to broach the question of limits, be they ecological or moral in the context of the economy.”

I left my conversation with Patrick Fleming certain that in these early years of the twenty-first century, voices like his must be heard and supported. The problems we face appear daunting, but the answers are eternally present and, as Patrick noted, they’re sometimes simple. Living and loving locally, and ever and again lifting high the Cross, are the kinds of responses that Catholics can offer a world growing divided and dark, and forgetful of its purpose and its worth.

Please keep Patrick and his family in your prayers, and please read more of this up-and-coming economist and eco-theologian at the online journal Humanum, the Quarterly Review of the John Paul II Institute’s Office of Cultural and Pastoral Formation.

About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.